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COVER STORY : Seriously Now, Joe . . . : Q: Did Fox chairman Joe Roth know 'Home Alone' would put his studio on top? A: Well, maybe, just a little.

February 24, 1991|ELAINE DUTKA | Elaine Dutka is a Times staff writer.

On a shelf in Joe Roth's airy, creme-colored office on the Century City lot of 20th Century Fox--an office once occupied by the legendary Darryl F. Zanuck--is a photograph taken of Roth and Tom Sherak, Fox's marketing and distribution chief, shortly after Roth was named chairman of the studio. On the photo, Sherak wrote in white ink: "Joe: May all your troubles be small . . . and all your pictures big."

Roth's troubles have not all been small and his pictures have not all been big, but considering what has happened at the once-struggling studio in the last 18 months, Roth's brief tenure has succeeded beyond anyone's expectations. In 1990, Fox doubled its share of the national box office, from 6.1% to 13.1%, climbing out of sixth place among the major studios to trail only Walt Disney and Paramount in 1990 ticket sales.

More significantly, the studio caught a wave during the second half of the year--pushed along by the first films Roth had put into production after his arrival in August, 1989--and took in $1 for every $5 earned from the rental of films in theaters throughout the U.S. and Canada. Such hits as "Die Hard 2," "Marked for Death," "Edward Scissorhands" and the colossal hit "Home Alone" propelled Fox into the No. 1 spot among all distributors--a position it has yet to relinquish during the first quarter of 1991.

John Hughes' "Home Alone," a sort of live-action version of a Roadrunner-Wile E. Coyote cartoon, hit the ground running in the No. 1 box office spot last November and didn't give it up for three months--and then only to another Fox release, "Sleeping With the Enemy." So far, "Home Alone" has grossed more than $230 million at the box office, a figure that translates into more than $100 million in film rentals to Fox. Some analysts believe the studio will match or exceed that figure when the "Home Alone" videocassette hits the market later this year.

"Home Alone" was a much-needed transfusion for a studio that had slipped into a decade-long slump that began with the departure of Alan Ladd, Jr. in 1979, and after luck ran out on a string of studio bosses. To those who call Fox's current rise a one-hit phenomenon, however, Fox can gleefully point out that it would have been the industry box-office leader during the last six months without "Home Alone."

For Roth and Fox, "Home Alone" became the little film that could, the story of an 8-year-old boy (Macaulay Culkin) who, when mistakenly left behind by his vacationing family, terrorizes two would-be burglars. The fact that people have swarmed to the picture must have Warner Bros. executives gnashing their teeth.

"Home Alone" was a Warner Bros. project three weeks before it went into production, but the studio--reportedly skittish when asked to add another $1.5 million to the film's budget--put the movie in "turnaround": Hollywood's way of saying, "We don't know what this thing's going to do; if you want it, you can have it for what we've got in it."

Roth picked up "Home Alone" from Warner Bros. and the movie, which finally cost $18.2 million to make, is neck and neck with "Beverly Hills Cop" as the most successful comedy in history. No wonder Fox sent 21 of its top executives to Las Vegas for the recent ShoWest convention of movie exhibitors. What are heroes without shoulders to ride on?

"I felt like I was wearing a Super Bowl ring or holding up the Stanley Cup," says Roger Birnbaum, Fox's president of worldwide production. "We're no longer Sisyphus pushing the rock up the hill and having it come down on us. 'Home Alone' is our golden cushion. It's made us solvent, taken the pressure off."

Not just for this year. "Home Alone" is now a "tentpole," a template for sequels that may go on until Macaulay Culkin has kids of his own. "Home Alone 2" has already been announced, as part of a rich multi-picture package Fox has put together with John Hughes, and will probably light up the marquees this Christmas.

"Six months ago, to a person, we would have forecast that in 1991 (Fox's parent company) News Corp. would be forced to pump a couple of million dollars into the studio to step up production," says Gordon Crawford, an entertainment industry analyst with Capitol Research and Management Co., an investment-management organization. "Now it's relieved of that burden. 'Home Alone' is like an annuity . . . That's the beauty of a successful motion picture. It goes on forever."

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